A Not-So-Foolproof Guide To Navigating Junior Independent Work

November 15, 2023
Melissa Ruiz

At the beginning of the year, in most seminars or precepts, professors will have students introduce themselves with their name, year, and major. It felt so weird to say “Hi, my name is Melissa, a junior majoring in psychology and minoring in Latino Studies”. Time at Princeton truly flies by and I couldn’t believe that I was already halfway through my time here. Junior year definitely comes with its own sets of challenges, it is the year all A.B. majors begin their junior independent work. For psychology majors, it is recommended that students find their own advisor that aligns with their research interests. So I began the search for an advisor and lab.

I instantly fell in love with the Adversity and Relationships in Context (ARC) Lab. The research topics were fascinating and thought-provoking and I immediately knew I wanted to be part of it. Even during my interview which is usually meant to be nerve-wracking, the lab manager and graduate student interviewing me opened up with a silly question: pancakes, waffles or french toast? (I obviously answered french toast.) This immediately told me everything I needed to know about the environment of this lab and made me very comfortable for the rest of the interview. When I received the email inviting me to be part of the ARC lab, I couldn’t have been happier. I was both excited and nervous about starting the work that so many upperclassmen talk about. 

We are now halfway through the semester and I’ve just completed my midpoint presentation for my junior paper. Psychology majors have two junior papers, one in the fall and one in the spring. The fall paper I’m working on is a literature review where I look through various articles on my research topic and it's meant to be around 10-20 pages in length. To check on the progress of our research, the psychology department conducts a presentation with a group of four to six psychology majors and a faculty member. While not intended to be a stressful check-in, I couldn’t help but be nervous leading up to the presentation. I had done an extensive review of the literature but I also remained undecided of what I really wanted to focus my research on. My friends who are also majoring in psychology were so helpful during this process. They were able to listen in and help me brainstorm ideas while also providing some insight into explaining my topic to an audience that may have never heard of it before. 

Alongside the support from my friends, being part of a lab is one of the best things about working on my junior paper. While I love the cozy and familiar nature of working with everyone in the ARC lab, I also value the experience and knowledge they’re able to use to help orient my research. Before my official presentation, my lab had all juniors present as a practice round to get some constructive feedback. I think this was one of the most useful aspects of my lab experience because they were able to provide me with specific advice about my research and gave me useful pointers that I can use as I continue to work on my first junior paper. After we had those practice presentations, my lab hosted a lab social! We made pizzas, decorated cookies and some people even painted mini pumpkins. 

Even though balancing my coursework, extracurriculars, and independent research can be difficult, I'm grateful for my support systems. They remind me to take breaks and enjoy life in between. I would love to say that independent work is simple or easy but instead, I’d rather say it presents a challenge that forms my academic career at Princeton. Everyone here is working on such innovative research, we’re learning how to be independent and creative while also having guidance from some of the leading researchers in our fields. I just know that these experiences will be markers of my future success in the field of psychology and also form an integral part of who I am.